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"During the Second Punic War Hannibal drove the Roman people to despair in the strength of their gods, and they extended their scope of appeal for divine assistance. Let Greek gods, then, be recruited..."
(A.H. McDonald)

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Number Two
An Omega limited series by Marc Singer

[Washington, D.C.]
[July 20, 1995.]
[One o'clock in the morning.]

Jack Russell set down his pen. He had just finished the first entry of his journal, detailing how Hannibal, Jack's mentor and guide to the world of the immortals, had suddenly disappeared on him. Now it was time to stop recording his own history, and start reading somebody else's. Jack had finally discovered Hannibal's journals, hidden in the library of the large mansion they were staying in as guests. Jack had no idea why Hannibal had disappeared, or which enemies might want such a disappearance, but the journals probably had clues.

Jack did already have two potential suspects: Antigone and Tiresias, the immortals who had supposedly arranged Astral's failed attempt to assassinate Hannibal. But he needed to know more about them—for one thing, what were the strange rules that governed their interaction with Hannibal—before he could tell if they were involved, or decide what to do if they were.

The biggest mystery that needed solving, as far as Jack was concerned, was Hannibal himself. Was the old immortal really the Hannibal? Perhaps it wasn't really that urgent to find out—but then again, knowing Hannibal's true identity and origins might be the only way to learn where he'd gone.

Or, Jack had to admit, that could just be his own way of rationalizing a search for Hannibal's origins before all else. Accepting that he really had to know, Jack rummaged through the pile of diaries and memoirs and books, looking for the oldest one he could find.

It was a bundle of scrolls, contained in a sealed plastic container, stuffed with notes and additions and other pieces of paper. And when Jack opened up the earliest dated scroll and read it, he discovered it wasn't a diary at all, but some kind of military report.


[From the annals of Mago, quartermaster of the army of Hannibal; Autumn, 220 B.C.]

...The latest expedition into Africa was a great success. They brought back over two dozen elephants suitable for war, and other treasures from the heart of the continent. The most curious of these was a wild man, said to have been found in the desert during the expedition's return. Hannibal was intrigued by tales of the wild man, and it was not long before he had the despicable creature brought to his palace...


[Kart Hadasht, "New Town," captial of Carthage-held Iberia.]
[Autumn, 220 B.C.]

The throne was huge, inlaid with ivory and gold and all the other treasures Carthage's mercantile empire could yield. It was rare to find such a luxuriant, wasteful item among the Governor's possessions, but he kept this specifically to dazzle and impress. He had only ascended to the Governorship less than two years ago, and many politicians—both here and in Carthage—still felt he shouldn't have been given such a delicate, important position. They preferred the peacemaking policies of Hasdrubal, the Governor's late predecessor and brother-in-law, and feared the new Governor would abandon them and make war with Rome. The throne was to remind them that it didn't matter what they thought anymore. For Hannibal was in power.

But the wild man , who was completely outside the sphere of Carthaginian politics, wasn't particularly impressed by the throne. In fact, the wild man's nonchalance was downright strange; Hannibal didn't care whether he commanded respect or hatred or awe, as long as he commanded something. "I would have thought a wild man of the desert would be more awed by this office," Hannibal said to Mago, his quartmaster and the official who brought the wild man into the Governor's office. "Or at least by its finery."

"He is surly and disobedient," Mago replied, "and doubtless is deliberately failing to show the proper respect. On your knees, creature." Mago jerked on the long chain, pulling the wild man to the floor. "Show some respect for the Governor."

"Maybe I will," the wild man said, "once you and he... show some respect to me."

He spoke in rough, broken Carthaginian, but even that astonished the court. Then, once the impertinence of the wild man's words set in, Mago's face flushed red with rage. But Hannibal's light tan skin lit up with surprise and delight. He smiled at the darker man, and said --


[Washington, D.C. 1995 A.D.]

Jack's eyes bulged out, and he reread the passage. Mago had written, "After this impertinence, the fair Hannibal showed no sign of anger at the dark creature, but told him..." Jack had the hardest time deciphering this stuff, trying to figure out what it really represented and how it would have looked, but he was pretty sure this meant that Hannibal, the real Hannibal, was a lighter-skinned man. And his Hannibal was one of the blackest black men he'd ever seen.

Jack had always been told that Hannibal was a black man. It seemed to be a staple of the "revisionist history"—which was shorthand for history about anybody other than white boys—that was just coming into vogue when Jack dropped out of college. For some people, the Carthaginian was a pillar of African-American heritage and a cornerstone of historical pride. But this and some other references in the scroll implied that Hannibal was no darker than any other Northern African, then or now. That shouldn't have mattered to Jack—who got pissed when other people made a big deal out of his skin color—but it really bothered him. It meant that the Hannibal really wasn't black—and that his Hannibal really wasn't the great general. Kind of hard to make him a spiritual father to my race now, Jack figured. And if my Hannibal wasn't Hannibal, then who was he?

Jack remembered the crazy wild man, bound in chains and dragged from Africa, and he was afraid and ashamed to read the rest of the scroll.

But he read it anyway.


[Kart Hadasht. 220 B.C.]

Hannibal smiled at the darker man, and he said, "You've learned our language already, wild man? Perhaps you deserve our respect."

"Then take these chains off me."

Hannibal's smile widened, and became even more transparently artificial. "But then you might leave, wild man. And I am told you have some abilities which might be of use to me."

The wild man drew back a little, and started blinking and stammering. "I—I have no abilities."

Hannibal rose from his throne, walked down the dais, and approached the prisoner. "Spare me your act," he said. "You might need it for those petty tribes south of the desert, but I can appreciate what you are. Mago—hurt the man."

"With pleasure, Governor." Still holding the chain with his right hand, Mago drew back his left and, swinging it with more power than any human should rightly have been able to summon, he hit the wild man in the back. Mago allowed the impact to knock the wild man across the throne room, but held the chain so it jerked him back in mid-air.

The wild man's body had a huge bruise from Mago's hand, and several smaller but equally vicious ones from the chain. But as Hannibal and his retinue watched, the bruises rapidly healed. Within minutes, it seemed as if there had been no blow at all. Hannibal helped the wild man to his feet. "So you can help us after all," the Governor said to the still- dazed prisoner. "Won't the Romans shit themselves when they learn we have someone who can match their deathless Gaul?"

Mago was amazed. "You mean—he's one of the Horatii, too?"

"That's a Roman term, Mago," Hannibal snapped. "If we use Roman terms, they've beaten us already. Don't call him a Horatius, Mago, call him..." Hannibal shrugged his shoulders. "Call him a God, for all I care.

"But call him mine."


[From the annals of Mago; Winter, 220 B.C.]

...Sadly, the wild man was assigned to my office, as all of the HorXXX all of the Gods have been. The savage is of little use, since his power gives him no physical strength or advantage, save for when he is injured. So I have given him menial work in the clerical office, in the hours when Hannibal's instructors are not training him to fight the Gaul. Surprisingly, he takes quite well to the work. But he has also asked to be taught to read and write our language, so he could help with the clerical duties. I told him no, of course, but have lately caught him stealing documents and teaching himself to read from them. On every occasion I have given him a severe beating, but his repentances last no longer than the scars on his back...

I am sure the creature only sustains his rebellion because Hannibal keeps supporting him, sometimes even stops my beatings. He is far too kind to his "Savage," but then he has been acting strange ever since he learned the Romans are supporting the anti-Carthage faction in nearby Saguntum. Personally, I think nothing will come of it... breaking the creature's habits will prove far more important than some backwater town...

[A new scroll, hastily scrawled in a new hand, dated May, 219 B.C.]

...The quartermaster's duties have kept me so busy, I have hardly had time to write lately, for the army is on the move. Hannibal's younger brother Hasdrubal guards Iberia and provides reinforcements, while we march to take Saguntum. From what I have overheard, Hannibal does not particularly care which party rules Saguntum, nor does he consider the town to be a threat to Iberia's security. He simply wants an excuse to fight the Romans. It was what his father Hamilcar did, and what he raised the young Hannibal to do. Hannibal fairly seethes with hatred for the Romans; if he could not vent his great rage upon them, I wonder if he would turn upon his own Carthaginian masters. In any case, the man clearly wants a war with Rome.

And I and my fellow "Gods" are key parts of this war. Rome seems to have amassed a large number of "Horatii," men with special powers, named after others with such powers who were heroes in early Rome. As much as Hannibal rejects everything Roman, he has followed this idea of collecting those with powers. Hiding us in the quarter- master's office, he is now ready to spring us on a fat and sleepy Rome...


[Outside the walls of Saguntum. June, 219 B.C.]

"You called for me, Governor?"

"General, now." Hannibal waved the wild man—now tamed—into his tent. "It's General here, or simply Hannibal. The post of Governor was just a means to an end."

"And that end is forcing your people into a war with Rome. Risking and sacrificing all their lives."

"Don't sound so bitter, Savage." A dangerous edge crept into the General's voice, and he remembered that for all Hannibal's preferential treatment, the man was still his captor and a bad person to anger. Hannibal continued to speak, saying, "After all, the war can't kill you, can it? Why should you worry about death?"

"I am accustomed to worrying about death. I was raised to think myself mortal, and your expedition found me in the desert not long after that belief was shattered. I still fall back on it from time to time."

"Fascinating. Please, Savage, have a seat." Hannibal reclined on a hard wooden chair, motioning for his slave to do the same. Hannibal wasn't one for pillows, not when he was at war. "We're soon going to lay siege to Saguntum. As I'm sure you know, the siege will occupy all our attention. A man like you might take advantage of the distraction to escape."

"The thought had crossed my mind, General."

Hannibal actually laughed. "No doubt it has. I don't want that, you know; I need all the Gods I can get on my side. I can't have you leaving."

"Then you will be tightening my chains, I take it." The wild man stared at the floor of the tent.

"Hardly. Sometimes the most effective chain is no chain at all. I want you on my side, Savage." Hannibal paused to sip water from a hollowed-out gourd, then offered the gourd to the wild man, who refused. "I also understand that you have been stealing supplies meant for my historians."

The wild man actually trembled; he'd grown far too accustomed to Mago's beatings, even if they hadn't come as often lately. "I—I know of no such --"

"Paper and ink, man! Why would a wild creature and a slave need paper and ink?"

"Why would your pet historians need them?" the wild man snapped.

He instantly regretted that comment, but Hannibal just smiled. The wild man could rarely tell whether the General's smiles were genuine or feigned. "Histories are important, Savage. If I don't have Silenus and Sosylus write my side of things, then the record will fall to those Roman dogs, and who knows what the world will think of me...." Hannibal seemed lost in thought for a moment; then his head jerked up and he addressed the wild man. "Alexander the Great," Hannibal said.

"What?"

"Alexander the Great. He's like you, Savage. Unkillable. Immortal."

"He's dead," the wild man observed.

"And he's going to be remembered as the greatest general in history," Hannibal said. "Immortal. We don't all have access to your kind of immortality, Savage. So our only chance is to write our stories... the story of a boy who inherits his father's army, and his unfinished work, and his enemies... ah, but that's Alexander's story, of course. Until someone else eclipses him."

"History doesn't have enough room for two immortals?"

"I don't think so, wild man. There can only be one greatest general. Just as there can only be one greatest city... Rome dies, or Carthage does. And to the winner goes immortality."

"Immortality purchased at the cost of all your men's lives."

Hannibal rose from his chair, and the wild man was afraid he was in trouble again. But Hannibal placed his gourd gently on a table, and said, "You may be right. You're the only one who points these things out to me, Savage. The only one.... Tell me, why hasn't Mago punished you for these thefts of yours?"

"Mago is not a smart man. Perhaps he doesn't know about them."

"Oh, he knows. He even knows about the journal you've been keeping. He's just afraid to discipline you anymore. Tell me, Savage, why is that?"

The wild man weighed the options, and decided this might be the right person and the right time to tell the truth. "I've been helping him out with the quartermaster's duties. Well, I've been doing them, actually. Mago's logistics aren't the best."

"Yes, I thought the new rationing system was a bit beyond his grasp. Well, Savage, there's only one way to correct such presumption on your part." Hannibal let the sentence hang in the air for a minute, and seemed gratified when he saw the wild man's tension. "I'm going to have to promote you. Savage, you are now quartermaster-general of my army, and you report directly to me."

Hannibal was so surprised, he could barely speak. Finally, he managed to say, "You mean I'm free now?"

"Absolutely. Of course, you also have so many responsibilities now, that keep you so close to my office, that I doubt you'll have time to escape. Come, we have to find Mago and tell him the good news." Hannibal started leaving the tent, but then stopped and snapped his fingers. "Oh, one more thing—I can't go around calling my quartermaster-general 'Savage.' What will people think? What's your real name, friend?"

The wild man blinked. "I have no name anymore."

Hannibal was silent for a moment; the dread look in the wild man's eyes, the tremendous pain lurking behind his voice, convinced the General not to press the point. "Very well, then," he said, "you'll have a new name. One that reflects your closeness to me... and your frank council... and hopefully your immortality. From now on, you are to be known as Hasdrubal."

The wild man said, "But that's your bro--"

"It is a common name in Carthage," Hannibal answered curtly. "Do your best to make yourself uncommon."


[From the annals of Hasdrubal, quartermaster-general of the army of Hannibal; Summer, 217 B.C.]

...After Saguntum fell, Rome and Carthage were virtually forced into war. Rome screamed for bloody revenge even as much of Carthage screamed for Hannibal's head. But as Hannibal led us through Iberia and across the Alps, his fortunes and his reputation changed. Town after Roman town fell to him, and suddenly Carthage realized it could actually beat Rome this time.

The Romans, meanwhile, grew more and more nervous. They saw that Carthage, too, had Gods on its side; Mago's barehanded destruction of the walls of Saguntum left little doubt of that. Our elephants also terrified them; the creatures have proven sadly ineffective in battle, but their mere sight terrifies the Romans. No, their mere existence does, for even those who have not seen them quake at the thought of elephants crossing the Alps. Africa, come to the very heart of their continent. Africa ascendant.

Carthage's forces are in high spirits. Even I am starting to refer to myself as one of them by accident—as when I said "our" elephants—and I'm not sure if I want to escape anymore. Except when I see the thousands dead on the battlefields; supposedly, they die for their respective cities' very survival, but I fear all this death stems from one man's rage.

Hannibal is no God or Horatius, although some claim he is. But even Mago's mighty hands have not killed as many as Hannibal's desire to be great. Mago and I, and the Roman Marcus whom I am being trained to fight, we all are content (or discontent) with being Gods; Hannibal aims for something even greater....


[Cannae, Italia. July, 216 B.C.]

Hasdrubal stood in the war-tent with Hannibal and the rest of the inner circle of Hannibal's subordinate commanders. He now thought of himself as Hasdrubal, and wondered how long it would be before he thought of himself as a full Carthaginian.

He'd certainly done more for Carthage than most of its citizens. During the siege of Saguntum—now three years past—Hasdrubal had grown into his role of quartermaster-general, overseeing supplies for the army and giving wise counsel to Hannibal. Where Mago's stick had failed, Hannibal's carrot had tamed the once-wild man. No matter how much the cost of war repulsed him, Hasdrubal could not blame Hannibal for it; the General seemed to burn with a light so fierce, it incinerated all opposition to him, all concerns of the morality of his actions.

Hasdrubal even helped Hannibal devise strategies to confound and kill more Romans. Last fall, when the army had to find winter quarters, the Romans under Fabius Cunctator had tried to pin them on the banks of the Volturnus River. Fabius held the high ground, and for a time it looked like the Punic camp might be stuck in the vulnerable valley. Hasdrubal and his men had crept out under cover of night, and rounded up nearly two thousand oxen in front of their camp. Then they tied burning branches to the oxen's horns and drove them up a ridge near the Romans. The Romans mistook the torches for the Punic army on the move, and charged after them. Hannibal and his spearmen spent the night skirmishing with the Romans and herding oxen, and while the Romans were thus occupied, the real Punic army crept out the mountain pass unopposed.

Hasdrubal had been exhilarated that his scheme had worked. When the morning sun rose, and he saw the bodies of all the men who had died over a herd of oxen, his enthusiasm dimmed. But the triumphant Hannibal was even more radiant than the sun that morning, and he soon obscured the bodies from Hasdrubal's conscience.

And so he followed Hannibal right into another desperate situation. The Punic Army was now holed up in the abandoned town of Cannae, far from friendly territory and running low on supplies. The new Roman proconsuls, Varro and Paullus, had come after Hannibal with four legions and all the Horatii they could muster. But Hannibal wasn't worried at all.

In fact, he seemed exhilarated as he explained the strategy to his subordinates and advisors. Hannibal hadn't fought a battle this huge since last year's crushing victory at Lake Trasimene, and he said another crushing victory was needed to reinvigorate his troops and strike fear into the hearts of the Romans. More likely, Hasdrubal thought, Hannibal needed the battle for his own morale as much as his troops'. The man probably didn't even care if they won or lost, so long as he got to fight the Romans.

Hasdrubal cared intensely. Immortal or not, he didn't relish the idea of taking a sword to the head. He would do his best to insure that his side won with a minimum of losses.

After his cow-herding performance at the Volturnus, Hasdrubal had been awarded command of Hannibal's Iberian and Gallic cavalry. He found it odd that one conquered man should be placed in charge of many more, but the rest of the Punic elite thought it appropriate that strange Hasdrubal run the motley crew of finely-dressed Iberians and half-naked, torque-wearing Celts. However, Hasdrubal was also placed in charge of most of the Punic Gods, for his wing played an important part in Hannibal's strategy. Hasdrubal left the tent, arranged his men in formation, and awaited the battle.

After two years of war, Hasdrubal had gotten used to its rhythms. Long periods of anticipation and tension, followed by short, terrifying spells of chaos and blood. The Punic army waited three full days before the Romans accepted battle—provoked, Hasdrubal feared, by Hannibal's unwarranted attack on the Roman camp the night before. Proconsul Varro, driven to anger, led his troops and Horatii into the field. And the exhilarated Hannibal responded by charging them.

Hasdrubal's cavalry engaged the Roman knights in a bitter, desperate clash. The fighting grew so thick that the troops had to dismount and fight on foot. While the purple-cloaked Iberians and the screaming, war-painted Celts held the front lines, the Gods started decimating their enemies. On the Punic side, the Great Maharbal grew to colossal proportions and began crushing troops. Fierce young Cales Thermiops simply stared at his foes; his eyes became bright red fireballs, and turned the Romans into screaming bonfires.

This challenge was swiftly met by the Roman Horatii, angered and out for blood. Hasdrubal quickly found himself fighting Zeteis, a Sicilian Greek with the power to fly who had joined the Roman side. Zeteis liked to strafe his enemies, killing them with slices from his sword as he flew past them. Hasdrubal threw his arms up around his head, more out of instinct than need, and let the Horatius slice him. As of yet, he was an unknown quantity. Hasdrubal fell, regrowing the ear that had been separated from his head, and Zeteis hurtled down for the kill. But thinking Hasdrubal was dying, the Horatius got sloppy; he wasn't expecting it when Hasdrubal leapt up and grabbed his arm. Zeteis hacked at Hasdrubal's arms, but Hasdrubal wouldn't let go, and his arm regrew too quickly to be hacked off. Zeteis could not escape, and he only had just enough time to realize his fate before a Celt ran up and stabbed the grounded flyer through his eye. Zeteis wasn't quite dead by the time Hasdrubal's ear had fully regrown, and the severed one on the ground had shrivelled and blackened.

Hasdrubal dropped Zeteis, once a godling but now a corpse. He tried shouting commands to his troops, but it was hopeless—they were in bitter infighting now, and all Hasdrubal could do was join in and hope his side won. Already, he was up to his knees in blood and human waste.

Then, across the field, he saw Mago leading a small cluster of men in a rally. The brutish man wasn't a good strategist, but he was second to none in combat.

Or second to none that Hasdrubal had yet seen. The Punic rally was countered by a group of Horatii. One, a tall, proud man who seemed to be a Gaul himself underneath his severe Romanesque bearing, charged Mago. Mago's strength punched through the man's armor and shattered his weapons, but could not break the man himself. Hasdrubal shivered and realized that this was Quintillus Marcus Graekki, the Warrior Who Could Not Be Killed. He started fighting his way through the battle, trying to take Mago's place in the fight.

Mago grabbed Marcus and broke both his arms, but they mended almost instantly. The Horatius was immune to Mago's strongest blows. Mago himself was not so lucky. Marcus picked up a piece of his sword and rushed Mago, deliberately getting hit so he could slip past Mago's guard. Then he jammed the sword into and across Mago's neck. Shocked, the Punic troops started falling back.

Hasdrubal reached the fight just as Marcus released Mago's bloody. It seemed that when Mago hit the ground, the whole earth trembled—but Hasdrubal quickly realized that Maharbal had just fallen as well. Hasdrubal grimaced and pointed his sword at Marcus, inviting him to battle. Marcus, champion of a hundred battles and slayer of Hannibal's most prominent God, simply laughed. "You want to avenge your friend, African?" he called, staring down his nose as if it were a long Roman proboscis, which it wasn't.

"Actually, I don't even care that he's dead," Hasdrubal answered. "But I've been assigned to fight you." Indeed, the two men were enemies long before they had ever met, thanks to the natures of war.

"You were assigned to fight me?" Marcus asked. "You poor man." And then they fought.

As gruesome and disgusting as Hasdrubal's many battles had been, it was even more gruesome when his opponent had the same power he did. Marcus and Hasdrubal hacked and slashed at one another, spilling blood and fingers and organs across the already-stained battlefield, regrowing them as quickly as they fell. Entire arms and legs were lost and regained before the battle was done.

The heat of the day and the stress of the fight began to wear Hasdrubal down, and for a moment he imagined that he and Marcus were the only fighters at Cannae; they were certainly taking enough wounds for an entire army. They were a Gaul and an African, a thousand Gauls and a thousand Africans, killing each other for the whims of Rome and Carthage... and those cities themselves danced at the whims of one man, one man who would transform the world if that was the process required to make him an immortal...

A cut across Hasdrubal's forehead healed, and he suddenly realized that he had been delirious because of a head wound. Marcus was standing over him, trying to decapitate him and failing because the neck was too regenerative. Hasdrubal stabbed upwards, hitting Marcus in the genitals. Marcus recoiled in pain, and Hasdrubal leapt up and resumed the attack.

But they were too evenly matched. If Mago's blows couldn't kill this man, Hasdrubal reasoned, his own certainly couldn't. Unless he could strike a blow that Marcus couldn't heal... Hasdrubal dropped his sword and unsheathed his dagger. Marcus, who was still only using a sword fragment, lunged for Hasdrubal's weapon.

Hasdrubal jumped in his path and stabbed the dagger into Marcus's head. Then, pulling on it with all his strength, he twisted the handle off the dagger. The blade was still lodged in Marcus's head. Howling in pain, Marcus clawed at it, but Hasdrubal shoved the man's hands away and hammered at the blade with the handle, driving it in until it couldn't be removed. Now Marcus couldn't heal around it, and would remain in intense pain. Marcus fled the battlefield, still clawing at his head, and Hasdrubal was too tired to do anything but let him go.

But the Punic troops were stirred by Hasdrubal's victory. They routed the Roman troops, annihilating nearly all of the cavalry and Horatii. Amazingly, Hasdrubal managed to reform his cavalry after that. Charging across the rear of the Roman lines, they chased off the other Roman flank, then pressed into the center of the field and trapped the Roman infantry between Hasdrubal's horses and Hannibal's footmen.

It was the crushing victory that Hannibal had been looking for. The Punic forces had devastated four legions and far more than the normal number of cavalry and Horatii. Hannibal considered it a total victory—although many of his soldiers and Gods might not have agreed. The Great Maharbal lay sprawled across the battlefield, his gigantic body having fallen after a vein in his ankle was cut by a perfectly normal-sized sword. And Mago lay near him, much smaller but no less dead.

But Hannibal scoffed at such concerns when Hasdrubal mentioned them to him. "Death is always a part of war," the General said. "What do those individual deaths matter today, in light of the victory we won? Nobody will ever believe the Romans are invincible again. That myth is gone now—and we, friend, we have taken its place. The whole world will be talking of the might of Hannibal and Carthage!"

"I'm sure Mago would have liked to hear them talk, General."

Hannibal laughed and poured himself a drink of wine, captured from the stores of the dead Proconsul Paullus. Paullus had been the one to decline Hannibal's invitation to battle. "Mago? Hasdrubal, don't tell me you miss that old bastard," Hannibal said, smiling.

"I don't. Not in the least. But I'm sure he misses being alive."

Hasdrubal left the tent, leaving Hannibal to bask in his victory while he marched across the field where tens of thousands had been slain.


[A new scroll. Paper-clipped to the top end is a page taken from a twentieth-century textbook, with one passage highlighted.]

...Let Greek gods, then, be recruited, since they had their place in the world order and many had already joined Rome. In 205 B.C. the Sibylline books directed the Senate to the Magna Mater of Pessinus in Asia Minor, great mother of the gods. An embassy consulted the Delphic oracle and went on to Pergamum, where Attalus gave them the black meteor stone of the goddess and a ship to carry it with due solemnity back to Rome; the young Scipio Nasica of the Cornelian family was judged worthy to receive her. The stone lay—as a hint to the goddess—in the temple of Victory on the Palatine, until she should have her own shrine. Magna Mater did her duty... But she had her own interests, too...


[Rome. Autumn, 205 B.C.]

"I—I trust the placement of the stone is to your liking, madame?" Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica smiled dimly at the woman, ready to answer her every beck and call. Although she would never let it show through her haughty, authoritarian exterior, the woman actually enjoyed all the fawning the Romans were giving her. And to think, they only thought she was the high priestess... just imagine if they knew she was the goddess...

"All is to my liking for now. You must leave for the consecration; we shall send for you when we need anything else." Scipio and his toadies scampered away; the woman decided it was nice to be treated like royalty again.

Her chief retainer felt somewhat differently. "Finally gone," he grumbled, "we can get down to work. Any idea of how we're going to defeat Hannibal?"

"Patience, dear Tiresias, patience," said Antigone. "After all, we have all the time in the world."


[From the annals of Hasdrubal, quartermaster-general of the army of Hannibal; December, 205 B.C.]

The camp is cold, dingy, and despondent; the soldiers are suffering from exhaustion and epidemic and worst of all, depression. It has been more than ten years since our greatest victory, and yet we are farther from defeating Rome now than we ever were before. Not only do the Romans still fight, they are now taking the war to Africa, and we are too far into Italy to stop them. The frustration of the soldiers is perhaps best summarized by the thought that still runs through the camp: "If only Hasdrubal had lived."

They do not refer to me, of course; I can't help but live. In fact, I am still as young and vigorous as the day I left Kart Hadasht—as the day I was found in the sand seas of the desert—while the rest of the army grows old and tired.

And dead. Two years ago, Hannibal's younger brother Hasdrubal made one last attempt to break through the Romans' territory and provide us with reinforcements. The ensuing battle proved to be the Romans' first major victory, and the next week, Hasdrubal's severed head was thrown over the pickets of our camp.

Hannibal took the news badly—though whether he mourned his brother or the ten thousand lost reinforcements, I cannot say. He has been fighting a defensive war for the last two years, waiting for Carthage to win on other fronts, letting history determine his course of action instead of the other way around. He is a shadow of his former self.

This is exactly what the Romans want, of course. After Cannae, even ten years after Cannae, Hannibal's legend is still too great—the Romans will not engage him direct battle and give him the victories he needs to shatter the public's confidence. Instead, they delay him, confine him, nip at his heels, keep him isolated and alone. Well, I suppose Hannibal has always been isolated and alone, but now that is true of his army as well as his soul. And it is hard to become an immortal general when there are no foes to fight.

I have avoided this line of thought for years now, but after the other Hasdrubal's death, I simply cannot ignore the truth any longer. And what little hope remained after Hasdrubal's departure was killed by the Magna Mater's arrival. Carthage has lost. Much as Hannibal might refuse to give up, his war is over.

The other soldiers realize this as well—and some of them blame me as much as they blame the Romans. I may be the leader of the Punic Gods, but after Cannae, the Gods have been given as little opportunity to fight as Hannibal has. And we, too, grow old and tired. Even Cales's fires aren't burning as brightly as they once did. His gaze, which once sliced through breastplates like paper, now barely ignites kindling. And his inner fires, which made him one of the most ardent Gods, are dimming as well. He sulks in his tent and pretends he does not notice the waning power that is forcing him off the battlefield. No doubt, he would rather have died fighting alongside Mago and Maharbal.

I fear others wish a similar fate had befallen me. My power can never help anybody but myself—I remain young while the rest of the army withers. The soldiers' sullen stares make it clear that they don't appreciate my vigor. Soon, this army will no longer be my home. But the Magna Mater's invitation offers me a new sort of companionship.

I should not even be contemplating this. Rome has been my enemy for fifteen years, and Hannibal has been my commander, my companion, and my benefactor. I would be a madman in the desert if it were not for him. I also would not have led thousands to death and killed thousands more if it were not for him. But even that shows how much I owe him, for everything that I am, I am because he gave it to me. Even my name. His brother's name.

Yet I am not his brother. I am a man who was forced into his service, and after enough time somehow mistook slavery for loyalty. I have followed him for fifteen years, through all manner of pointless battles and deaths. And where has it led me—a sick, dying camp? A general forgotten by the very war he started?

I know what I am going to do. I knew two years ago, when my namesake's head came flying over the pickets.


[Nowhere. December, 205 B.C.]

Getting to the meeting was all too easy; the mad eunuch priest who delivered the Magna Mater's invitation had also given Hasdrubal detailed instructions on how to respond to it. The fanatic had allowed himself to be captured by a patrol and brought before Hasdrubal, just long enough to convey his godess's message. Then he'd gouged his eyes out with his own hands, and died soon afterwards. In that light, perhaps the Magna Mater really did prize Gods and Horatii above mortals, regardless of their political or religious affiliation. But seeing how she'd treated her prized priest, that favor didn't make Hasdrubal feel any safer.

He didn't have much choice, though. And even if this meeting did end badly, Hasdrubal wasn't terribly afraid of death anymore.

The ritual was quite simple: a few herbs were mixed and burned before going to bed, a few words were chanted while he drifted off to sleep. Supposedly, the Magna Mater would take care of the rest. Hasdrubal sank down onto his pallet, and when his eyes snapped open, he was in a large open-air theatre.

It was daylight—even though it was night over nearly all of the known world—and the sky was such a brilliant blue that it didn't seem real. In fact, everything was too vivid to be real, including Hasdrubal himself. He wore Carthaginian armor; it shone too brightly, even for the unreal sunlight. Hasdrubal was the only one in Punic dress; more too- real people were appearing in the theatre, but all of them seemed to come from other parts of the world. Some of them wore Roman clothing, and gave Hasdrubal evil stares. None were so evil as the stare from Quintillus Marcus Graekki, though. Marcus still had a nasty scar across his face, even in this idealized place. Supposedly, the Romans still couldn't get the dagger out of his head, because his skull healed faster than the chirurgeons could cut it open. Marcus charged across the theatre, far faster than Hasdrubal would ever have thought possible, and suddenly the two men were fighting.

Strangely, their fists passed right through each other, without doing any harm. Around the theatre, some other attendants were snickering. Chastised, Marcus slumped down into a stone seat. Hasdrubal skulked halfway across the theatre and did the same.

While he was sitting, a slim Greek woman slowly materialized on the stage, followed by a wrinkled old man who seemed to have a woman's breasts. Both wore the robes of the Cult of Magna Mater, and when they were completely materialized, the woman addressed the crowd. "As you can see, kinfolk, any struggle here is useless. You were not summoned to fight, but to listen." By now, the crowd had silenced. "Some of you already know me," the woman said. "To the rest of you, I am the Magna Mater. As you can see, I am no giant woman of the woods, no earth mother, though I could have birthed a thousand children by now if I so desired.

"I am Antigone, and the more literate and educated among you will know that means I am royalty. For the more temporally minded, my current high station in the Roman Republic should signify power aplenty. Yet my royal blood and my military power are inconsequential when compared to the real source of my might, and the real reason I have brought you all here.

"I cannot die. None of you can, either. We are all of us immortal."

A buzz of astonishment rippled through most of the crowd. Even Hasdrubal, who had guessed at the purpose for this meeting, could not believe that they were all immortals. There must have been twenty of them... twenty other people like him. Hasdrubal shed one solitary tear of joy, and in this perfect place, the tear was liquid diamond.

"That's right," Antigone continued. "We are all immortals. The ultimate step in the ascension of the human race, from our humble origins as dull creatures made of gold and put on the earth by Zeus. And the time has come for us to band together." Behind her, the hermaphrodite high priest produced a large black stone—or the idea of a large black stone—and began chanting over it. Soon, images of the current war filled all their heads. Hasdrubal watched friends and enemies die all over again, with a curious detachment caused by the new perspective. "Our fellow Horatii—or Gods—have been pitted against each other, to further the interests of two mortal cities. Two of our kind have even battled, to the disfigurement of one." Hasdrubal saw his battle with Marcus; across the theatre, the legionary scowled. "Fellow immortals," said Antigone, "this mutual slaughter has to stop. We are too few and too valuable to squander, particularly at each other's hands. I have summoned you here to call for an immediate withdrawal from one side, and to propose that we engineer a similar withdrawal for all mortal Horatii."

Hasdrubal instantly knew, just by looking around, that he was the only one present from Carthage's side. The others knew it as well. Marcus grinned triumphantly.

As a formality, there was some debate on the issue, but it was neither long nor significant. Five immortals were allied with Rome. The vast majority had no opinion one way or the other, but could not be swayed to side with Hasdrubal and Carthage against five others. Nor could Hasdrubal blame them; one against five were odds that only Hannibal would take. Antigone announced that the withdrawal from Carthage was decided, and Hasdrubal stood up angrily.

"I have decided no such thing," he announced, even if he had been contemplating it all along, "and I will not decide for my mortal allies. This body has no authority over me anyway."

Antigone tried very hard not to smile, but a faint smirk crept through her resolve anyway. "My dear Hasdrubal," she said, "you haven't been long on this earth, have you? We fellow immortals have the only authority over you. No city can be built that will not crumble out from under you. And when Rome and Carthage are both dust, and this war is just a fading memory, we will still be here. And we will remember if you crossed us. You will be a pariah, not from one city or empire or continent, but from all history."

Threats of physical revenge, like those offered by Marcus, did not intimidate Hasdrubal. But to lose the only constant companions on the planet... it was far too much.

Still, something in him would not let him surrender so easily. Perhaps it was the way Marcus and the hermaphrodite and Antigone smiled, as if they were playing a joke on the African. Perhaps it was simply the Hannibal that was in him.

"I acknowledge the wisdom of your words," Hasdrubal said. "It is simply... it is simply your authority in this meeting that I challenge. Why should you be allowed to determine the terms of the vote? Why determine our actions at all? We are all equally immortal here."

"Don't be so sure, African," Marcus called.

"That's not necessary, Marcus," Antigone said, a little too sweetly. "Threats will not move this warrior, but perhaps logic will. Hasdrubal, surely you cannot wish to prolong the war any further. Hannibal's cause is all but doomed. You may think you owe something to the man, but he will be dead one day,"

-- Or his own kind of immortal, Hasdrubal thought --

"And we will still be around. Why condemn yourself, and those like you, to more pointless death? Carthage and Rome, Hasdrubal, don't really matter. We matter. Let's not kill each other. Now return to your camp and abide by our agreement, hmm? You can come back once you've realized who your real allies should be."

Hasdrubal tried to organize his tumultuous thoughts. "There is much wisdom in your words," he said, "but the issue is your power --"

Antigone batted her eyes. "Go."

[Bruttium. December, 205 B.C.]

Hasdrubal woke up in a cold sweat. He spent a few minutes shaking it off, and a few hours thinking about the meeting. Antigone's arguments against the war were sound enough, but something about her domination of the meeting deeply troubled him. Hasdrubal desperately wanted to do the right thing, but wondered if it really was the right thing if she wanted it done.

After a while, Hasdrubal got up and stepped out of his tent, into the camp. He had to admit, it looked pathetic. A bunch of men waiting for relief or battle, neither of which would never come. One man waiting most intently of all.

Hasdrubal walked past the guards and slipped into Hannibal's tent. He sat next to the general for a few moments, watching the man toss and turn in his sleep. After a while, Hannibal seemed to take notice of him. "'Sdrubal... you decide to sleep here tonight?" he mumbled.

"Hannibal..." Hasdrubal whispered. Perhaps there was some better way of doing this. "Hannibal, are we going to return to Africa? Are we going to stop this?"

Hannibal laughed weakly. "'F course not... silly Savage... elephants to the heart of Rome..."

Hasdrubal patted his friend's head. "That's right," he whispered. "Elephants to the heart of Rome... your toy elephants and savages... just like you always wanted."

After a while, Hannibal drifted back to sleep. Hasdrubal rose, left the general's tent, and headed back to his own. Quickly, quietly, he began to pack his possessions.


[A new scroll. Another highlighted passage from a twentieth-century book is attached.]

...But at Zama, Hannibal had not encountered a Longus or a Varro or a Fulvius; his elephants were not the noble beasts that had crossed the Pyrenees, the Rhone and the Alps; his cavalry, inferior in number, had apparently no Hasdrubal...


[Rome. November, 202 B.C.]

The news had finally reached Rome: Hannibal and Carthage were at last defeated. Scipio Africanus—assisted by a division of unmatched Horatii—had bested Hannibal at Zama. Soon, he would force Carthage to accept his terms of peace. The war was virtually over, and Rome was victorious. The people of Rome danced through the streets, their enthusiastic celebrations making even the wild eunuchs of Magna Mater look tame for once.

The Magna Mater herself actually was tame. She walked calmly through the halls of the temple of Victory, followed by her retainers and immortals. Marcus had brought news directly from the front; the last, lingering Gods who hadn't abandoned Carthage had been killed. He'd even brought the eyes of Cales as a trophy.

"Well, that's one loose end tied up," Antigone said. "Without Gods to match us, Carthage is no threat. Now we have to slowly suppress our own mortal Horatii... I want no record of their participation in the war to survive. None." Of course, Antigone wanted to control far more than just the Horatii's history, but her followers didn't need to know that just yet. "We don't need any more legends giving us problems. I also want Scipio kept as far from Rome as possible; the man is far too popular for our own good." Antigone suddenly stopped walking, and tapped one foot on the floor impatiently. "Are you getting all this down?" she imperiously asked her secretary.

Her secretary stopped staring at the glistening black meteor stone in the center of the temple, and started transcribing her commands again. "I'm sorry, Magna Mater," Hasdrubal said, and when she started walking again he shuffled after her.

[Astral space. December, 185 B.C.]

The meetings were uncommon and sparsely attended once the war ended, but all the immortals came to this one. It was the twentieth anniversary of their first meeting—a very minor milestone to immortals, but an exact milestone nonetheless—and besides, Antigone had some important announcements.

They held this meeting in astral space, just like the first one, so that everybody could attend. After the initial pleasantries and small talk, Antigone called the meeting to order. Antigone always ran the meetings.

"I intend to address the wars between Rome and Greece," she said, "but first some more pleasant business. After conferring with my associates, I have decided on a name for our little family. As we are all somewhat long-lived --" she waited for laughter that didn't come—"I propose that we name ourselves the Vitalongae."

"Always a Latin name, isn't it, Antigone?" said Hasdrubal. The outburst took his mistress by surprise. "Just like you always call us Horatii... we aren't all Roman, Antigone, and we don't all prefer their language."

Antigone was shocked, but she recovered quickly. "My my," she said, "it seems Hasdrubal has found his backbone once again. I suppose it would regenerate.... Tell me, secretary, what do you propose instead?"

"I propose you stop calling me a Horatius. Where I came from, I was a God."

"And I am an Asherah," said one of the immortals from the audience.

"I am a Star Bureaucrat --"

The outburst astonished Antigone, Tiresias, and Marcus. The other immortals never acted like this; most were glad just to have other immortals to talk to, and the rest were positively afraid of being ostracized. Antigone tried to regain some control over the group by announcing she would pick another name.

"You aren't going to be picking anything, Antigone," Hasdrubal said. "You don't run us. From now on, everything comes to a vote."

Antigone was turning bright red—not the pinkish red that flushes people in real life, but the literal, ultravivid red of astral space. "I barely tolerated your antics twenty years ago," she screamed, "and I will not tolerate them now! You are out of the Vitalongae, Hasdrubal, and when you wake up you had best run quickly, because I will have Marcus torture you on sight!"

Hasdrubal smiled. "Sorry, Antigone, but that would be against the rules. No member of the Vitalongae may do harm to another—it's going to be our first and only law."

Antigone turned to the other immortals. "You see, he is the one who wants to order you around!"

"Actually," said Hasdrubal, "we put it to a vote yesterday. And by unanimous decision, we decided that we don't want you threatening us. I suppose my peers remembered when you threatened me, and considered how easily you could do the same to them." He stepped closer to Antigone, whispering in her face. "You might consider that now, we can do the same to you. Don't try to oppose us."

Tiresias, who had been hastily fiddling over his astral image of the meteor stone, waved the image aside and approached Hasdrubal. "You've been using the stone, haven't you? You learned the rituals and called your own meetings!"

"He did considerably more than that," said Fei Lien, the immortal from the other side of the world. "He taught us all the rituals as well. Antigone, your leadership is ended." To prove his point, Fei Lien clapped his hands together, and the Greco-Roman amphitheatre disappeared -- to be replaced by the interior of a large, circular tower, filled with paper lanterns and carved dragons.

While the other immortals clapped and joked amongst themselves, changing the scenery to suit their whims, Antigone glowered at Hasdrubal. "You feigned servitude all this time?"

"Antigone, with all the servitude I've endured, yours was quite easy to adopt and discard."

The scenery was changing around her, from pagoda to ziggurat to unspoiled forest. There was nothing else she could do. Antigone laughed. "You've got me this time," she told Hasdrubal between giggles, "but I have a long memory and a long life to match it. You will pay."

Not to be outdone, Hasdrubal grinned. "Just so long as you follow the rules."

When the immortals finally settled down, they addressed the naming issue again. None of the other proposed names for the organization sounded better than "the Vitalongae," and the slight plurality of Roman and Roman-allied immortals meant the Latin name was chosen. However, the group was quite insistent upon rejecting the "Horatii" appelation for all humans with special abilities.

To Hasdrubal's slight annoyance, Antigone devised the compromise name—and she chose it from her native tongue. "As we are the ultimate step in the progression of the human race," she said proudly, "I propose that we name ourselves after the final letter of the Greek alphabet. With your permission --" she still sounded bitter about that -- "I say we name ourselves Omegas."

Even Hasdrubal had to admit that it sounded good. One of the many things he'd learned from Hannibal and the Magna Mater was the power of names. In fact, that was one last thing he had to tend to, before he ran out of time.

[Bithynia. 182 B.C.]

"You filthy ingrate! Get out of my sight!" Hannibal hurled his cup across the room, with great strength and accuracy for a man of sixty- four.

However, Hasdrubal dodged it with ease. "Do you really want to waste your whole life fighting," he asked calmly, "or will you save a little time at the very end for peace?"

Hannibal was looking for another implement to throw, but he reconsidered and sank back down to his couch. "Ah, I couldn't hurt you anyway."

"For what it's worth, General, I didn't want to hurt you, either."

"It wasn't me you hurt," Hannibal protested, "it was Carthage."

Hasdrubal nodded his head reproachfully; such a shame that the mortal had taken longer to face the truth than the immortal. "Carthage still stands," he said, "and I even hear that trouble with Rome is brewing again. Although I don't see why they should start picking fights after they ran you out of town. They can't win without you."

"I won't be around when the next war starts anyway. But you, on the other hand... if you returned...." Hannibal looked at Hasdrubal imploringly, but then he corrected himself before the immortal could do it. "Oh, screw all that. Neither one of those damn cities deserve us. Carthage was always just a means to an end."

"Not my end," Hasdrubal said.

"No, not your end." The anger had fled from Hannibal now, and he invited Hasdrubal to sit beside him; the immortal accepted. "It wasn't my end either," said Hannibal. "My end is to run from one defeat to another, one pissant kingdom to another, fleeing the Romans until I can't flee anymore. And far from becoming an immortal, I am about to discover just how mortal I am." He pointed to a phial sitting on a small table, which he'd been ready to pour when Hasdrubal entered the room. "That's my largest regret, you know. If I am remembered, it will be as the man who lost to Rome. Not the sort of immortality I wanted."

"That's why I'm here, General. I think I can give you some of what you wanted. Without resorting to more war." Hasdrubal waved his hands from his head down to his torso, indicating his own unchanged body. It hurt Hannibal to look at it; it reminded him of old days that could never be recaptured, and new days he would never see. Yet it was also his last chance.

"I cannot promise to take up your exact cause or methods," Hasdrubal continued, "for I am not your slave or your surrogate brother anymore. Nor can I promise what history will say about you. But I can promise I will always be as independent as you were. I will always be an elephant in the streets of Rome. And I can even insure that Hannibal will be responsible for all I do. There is just one thing I ask of you."

Hannibal's body tensed as he waited for the request. Hasdrubal leaned in closer, pressing his lips against Hannibal's ear. After he was done asking, Hannibal stared at him for a moment. Then, laughing, Hannibal said "Of course, of course! After all you did for me, all I gave to you..." Hannibal laughed even louder, and grabbed the phial. "Let those Roman bastards come for me, they'll find I've slipped through their grasp once again! Hannibal never surrenders!" He nearly drank the phial, but at the last moment he paused and asked Hasdrubal, "You won't surrender, will you?"

"Not if I have such power and responsibility as you."

"Then take it. It's yours." Hannibal drank the contents of the phial. "Hasdrubal," he said, "I'm glad you could be—glad you could --" Hannibal dropped to the floor and convulsed madly.

The poison wasn't gentle, but it was swift. The immortal held the dying man for a few minutes, and when the man stopped twitching, the immortal respectfully laid him on the couch.

The immortal left the room, the first person to hear the terrible news that Hannibal, once the greatest man in the world, was now dead—after a fashion.

He also had some news for his immortal peers, the next time they saw him. He wasn't taking the name of a slave or kid brother anymore. His new name was much, much more powerful.

"Hannibal is dead," he muttered, pausing before a small mirror. "Long live Hannibal."


[A note scribbled onto the back of the final scroll, written in Hannibal's hand, sometime in the late nineteenth century.]

And so the General did have his immortality. I even replayed his war, in a much more humane fashion, in my constant challenges to Antigone, Marcus, and their ilk. The General himself enjoyed another sort of immortality as well, for despite his pessimistic predictions, he was indeed venerated as one of the greatest generals in history. His amazing personality has continues to burn across time and around the world, enthralling all who encounter it. I am even told that the General's influence is felt on the American frontier, where a small Missouri town is named for him.

No matter how much he used and controlled me, no matter how many people he killed, I am glad the General finally got his wish. Because every mention of his name or his reputation reminds me of that brief, glorious time when it actually seemed that Africa might march triumphantly through the heart of Europe.


[Washington, D.C. July 20, 1995.]

Jack set down the final scroll, and he leaned back in his chair. He noticed that morning light was streaming through the windows, and probably had been for some time, but he was still thinking about the story he'd read.

He was ecstatic. He didn't have any more clues about Hannibal's disappearance, he didn't even know his ultimate origins, but he did feel he knew the man a lot better now. He also knew about the Vitalongae, Antigone, and Tiresias... perhaps he even knew why Hannibal didn't want him to meddle in mortal affairs. He was filled with knowledge and history and a past he could relate to. It seemed too good to be true.

And it probably wasn't true. Because Jack couldn't read Latin or Greek. He couldn't read whatever the Carthaginians wrote in, and he sure as hell couldn't speak whatever they spoke in astral space. And the convenient date notations... nobody would have used the term "B.C." when writing two hundred years before Christianity. Everything he'd read had been a series of English translations, written around and between and behind of the originals. For all Jack knew, he could have been missing half the story. Or the whole thing could've been made up.

No, he couldn't think that way. These scrolls were his only leads, so he'd have to use them, and take their tales at face value. He even had to rely on them to pick his next reading.

The Carthaginian expedition found Hannibal in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Jack eyed the pile of journals, knowing that in his next reading, he'd go back to Africa.

TO BE CONTINUED...


Next issue: Forward in time, and back to epic Africa. Hopefully, there will be a bit more on the disappearance plot... and, a woman enters the picture.


This issue's quote comes from A.H. McDonald's Republican Rome, my inspiration for how Antigone came into the plot. The Zama quote comes from Brian Caven's The Punic Wars, an excellent work that provided most of the actual facts found in this story. Caven's book alerted me to the real Hasdrubal, who actually was a great tactician as well as Hannibal's quartermaster-general. No sign that he was immortal, but then again, I didn't find any mention of his death...

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